Is there any meaning and purpose to being male and female, or to sexuality as a whole?
According to the logic of the sexual revolution, the answer is no. In fact, unintelligibility is necessary for personal freedom. After all, intelligibility implies intrinsic meaning, which demands that if I wish to act reasonably, I must conform my behavior to it. But, says the sexual revolution, any objective, intrinsic meaning obstructs my free choice to assign things and acts whatever meanings I want them to have. Thus, personal freedom requires sex be meaningless and purposeless.
But is meaning-less and purpose-less freedom necessary for human fulfillment? Is it a good idea to rip away meaning and purpose from sex?
To help us think through these ideas, I will turn to an unexpected source: Bernard Lonergan, a Jesuit theologian who died in 1984. Lonergan almost certainly never heard of transgenderism, queer sexuality, and most of the other sexual flavors du jour. Yet he did think about the nascent sexual revolution and offers great insight into the meaning and purpose of sex.
Lonergan on Finality
In a 1943 essay titled “Finality, Love, Marriage,” Lonergan argues that the human being has three levels of “finality.” The word “finality” means “being ordered to a goal.” A more traditional term would be “teleology.” Before we tackle the telos of sex, let’s examine the much less contested purpose of human digestion.
My digestive system has a goal (or “end,” in philosophical language): to nourish my body. All the different digestive organs and processes are ordered to that end. Thus, my digestive system exhibits “finality.” This kind of finality is what Lonergan calls “horizontal finality,” or being ordered to the immediate end of a process or a desire. This is the lowest level of finality.
The highest level of finality is “absolute finality”: the ordering of all things to God as their source and end. From this vantage point, my eating is one of the processes of life that keep me alive so that I can pursue God’s will in the world and live with him happily in heaven. This “absolute” perspective can relativize the “horizontal” strata. I might choose to deprive myself of food on Ash Wednesday, for example, in order to grow closer to God.
The tricky part, as Lonergan recognized, is the in-between finality, which he calls “vertical finality.” This finality has to do with complex processes or levels of reality coming together in service of a higher process or of a whole entity.
Think of possible objections to my digestion example given above. Perhaps a foodie would protest: Is the purpose of the digestive system really just to nourish my body? What about the enjoyment of the taste of exquisite food? Or, on a higher level, what about the social warmth kindled by gathering around a meal? For a human person, eating is richer than the mere accumulation of calories and nutrients. This “higher” or “vertical” level has to do with the flourishing of the human person as a concrete whole. In us, though not in lower animals like worms, the accomplishment of the immediate (“horizontal”) end of nourishment also can fulfill higher ends, such as friendship. This human complexity means that eating can be very meaningful, but it can also become disordered, just as sex can.
The key point is that, because we are the kind of creature that has multiple levels, what happens on the lower, material levels affects the higher, spiritual ones in important ways.
Another word for the interplay among different levels is “integration,” a word loved by Lonergan as well as therapists and spiritual directors everywhere. Integration includes a person’s appreciation of all the levels of herself.
To be integrated means that I embrace the fact that I am both material and spiritual, living as a united human being rather than being at war with the different parts of myself. Lonergan describes such integration as a “vertical dynamism and tendency, an upthrust from lower to higher levels.” In other words, we human beings are not satisfied with remaining at the level of the purely material. We want physical activities to be put into a broader context of human life, to be integrated into the higher levels. Thus, social conventions around table manners raise our eating to the level of social responsibility (we chew with our mouths closed), human interaction (we force our kids, and ourselves, to make conversation at dinner rather than staring at phones), and so forth.
As Lonergan puts it, the lower horizontal levels are more “essential,” but vertical finality is more “excellent.” It is more essential that I nourish myself and remain alive, because without that, I can’t have friendships, or think, or act. But it is more excellent to do the latter things, and the lower levels exist precisely to support the higher levels and their more excellent activities.
Integration is not a matter of trying to eliminate the lower levels (what novelist Walker Percy calls “angelism”) nor is it a matter of pretending the higher levels don’t exist (what Percy calls “bestialism”). I am neither angel nor beast but a weird in-between reality, a rational animal. Integration entails accepting all the levels of my existence and working to use the lower activities to support the higher ones, and the higher activities to understand and accept the lower ones.
The three lowest levels of reality—the physical, the chemical, and the biological—are organized by material “schemes of recurrence.” Physics studies the common denominators of all material reality: atoms and subatomic particles, forces such as gravity, and so forth. Here, the finality consists of the sorts of things clearly demonstrated by Newtonian physics, such as the motion of an object to a location. Chemistry studies compounds and reactions. Here, we find the beginnings of “schemes” pertinent to sex: namely, male and female hormones (testosterone, estrogen, and so forth). But it’s not until we get to biology, the study of living beings, that we find sexed differences as an organized system. Let us, then, move from our benign example of digestion back to the contested sphere of sexuality.
If the sexual revolution is wrong, and sex retains horizontal finality—if it is “for” something—what might that something be? Everyone knew the answer to that question until about a hundred years ago: procreation, or the generation of children.
This finality is not, Lonergan notes, necessarily the same thing as a person’s own motive for engaging in sexual activity or getting married. In acting, a person can have all sorts of motives or intentions, called the finis operantis, or the end of the agent. Nonetheless, the act itself retains its own natural orientation, called the finis operis, or the end of the act. This “horizontal” finality is, for sexual activity, the generation of a child. Watch a documentary on the laborious process of sperm and egg uniting, and you can’t help but cheer when (or if) it successfully occurs. Nature herself cheers, as she does for all horizontal ends successfully reached.
The sexual revolution is the attempt to eliminate horizontal finality from sex. Sex is no longer about babies but about anything we want it to be. And if sex has no intrinsic horizontal finality, it’s hard to see how it has any purpose. It floats free of all three kinds of finality, utterly unintelligible. Yet sexual revolutionary thinking assumes that I can impose my subjective meanings onto sex and still fit sex into a kind of vertical finality—namely, my personal fulfillment as a human being. In Lonergan’s terms, the revolution retains vertical finality, while discarding horizontal finality.
This is a perilous undertaking. Why would the levels of a human person add up to a coherent whole if the levels themselves lack coherence and purpose? And why do we discard horizontal finality only at the level of biology and not, say, at the level of physics? Indeed, contemporary insistence on the absurdity of our sexed bodies is one factor in the rise of nihilism.
In order to “liberate” sex from meaning and ends, thereby making it absurd, the sexual revolution relied on two main technologies: contraception and abortion. Both these technologies aim at eliminating the generative horizontal finality of the sexual act.
Yet the revolution could not, of course, stop there. Once sexual intercourse is rendered meaningless and end-less, many other things become unintelligible. Why are there males and females at all, if reproduction is optional? The queering of gender and the multiplication of sexualities are logical next steps, as the reign of meaningless, end-less sex extends its empire. Pornography, with its infinitely proliferating sexual fetishes, fills the vacuum created by the absent horizontal finality. If sex isn’t about anything, it is about everything.
This multiplication of the finalities of sex happens in part because we have forgotten what sex is naturally about and have instead imposed meanings and ends upon it. These meanings and ends are derived from our feelings and ideas, which are higher levels of the human person. Thus, by ignoring horizontal finality, the sexual revolution created a crisis of vertical finality, of the integration of the higher aspects of man with the lower.
Let’s continue our tour of the various horizontal strata of the human being to see how the biological and the sexual impact the higher levels.
As we ascend beyond the level of life, studied by biology, we enter the level of the psychological and sociological, studied by those disciplines as well as by anthropology. Other higher animals function on this level, as the ancient Greeks already knew; they have emotions and social organizations. But human emotional and social functioning is superior, because these facets of ourselves, while rooted in our bodies, extend upwards yet further, to our rational powers. Wolf packs instinctively organize themselves, but human communities consciously make choices: What will our organizing structure be? Who shall lead us? It will not necessarily be the one who is physically strongest.
Obviously, for us as for other animals, the sexual hugely impacts the socio-emotional. The most basic form of political community, Aristotle insists, is the family, and much of our emotional life centers around these familial relationships (parent-child, husband-wife, brother-sister). Healthy political life respects the “essential” nature of procreation (the lower, biological level), while calling men and women to the “excellence” of regulating their relations justly and intelligently (the higher, socio-emotional and rational levels).
The term “intelligence” points to the highest natural level, found in the visible world only in human persons: rationality, which encompasses the powers of intellect and will. Human beings act not only instinctually but also freely, through our ability to understand a situation and judge the best way of acting, which may contradict our instincts.
Do the sexual and the biological impact this level? A strict follower of Descartes must say no. The impact, he would insist, goes the other way: I use my rational powers (res cogitans) to organize the material world (now reduced to res extensa, mere extended stuff). This way of thinking is familiar to the post-sexual-revolutionary world, in which human fertility is a chaotic force. An ad for the early birth-control pill Enovid showed Andromeda “freed from her chains”—the chains of a fertile female body. Through the pill, the ad argued, “woman” was now “permitted normalization … of cyclic function and procreative potential.” The ad assumes that the healthy (i.e., fertile) female cycle is somehow abnormal and chaotic until it is chemically replaced with the pill’s artificial cycle.
Our Cartesian interlocutor, in other words, has forgotten horizontal finality. Indeed, he is not alone. Much of modern science explicitly rules out final causes to enable us to impose our own purposes on otherwise end-less matter. Or, at least, many modern scientists attempt this, usually unsuccessfully. It turns out that the natural world constantly presents itself as meaningful and purpose-driven. Bodily systems order physiological processes toward health; atoms order their particles toward stable rotations; even gravity orders heavy things towards the center of larger masses (as expressed in the ancient postulate that the stone “desires” to rest on the earth). Who contests these facts? Only in the biological realm—and, most importantly, in the sexual—do we assume the lack of horizontal finality and the need for sheer Cartesian power to bend these “facts of life” to our own, anti-life purposes.
What’s Different About Sex?
This brings us back to the two questions I raised earlier. Why do we limit horizontal causality most forcefully here, at the level of the sexual? And why do we assume that vertical finality is achievable for a human person, whose sexual nature is regarded as absurd and purposeless?
The short answer to the first question is that we feel ourselves much more limited by our sexed bodies than by gravity or sub-atomic particles. Our sexuality ties us to other people and to the future, in the form of partners and children. These ties are real, and the burdens that they put on us—especially and asymmetrically on women—should not be minimized. But relational ties are not reducible to burdens, and limits are not reducible to unfreedom. In fact, we only thrive when we have such ties and limits, which set us upon a certain path, this one and not that one. Without a certain path, we have no goal and are aimless. Without a limit, we have no structure and are unintelligible even to ourselves.
The second question highlights the importance of integration in vertical finality. If I think I can cobble together a meaning and purpose for my life by omitting the fact of my body, I am not in fact achieving vertical finality; I’m just pasting together a Franken-human, selectively choosing some levels and rejecting others. In truth, the sexual revolution requires that I find meaning and purpose outside of my fertile body. Opposition to integration is not a bug but a feature.
The most obvious example of this is found in transgenderism. Here, we are asked to believe a few falsehoods. First: Sex is not rooted in the level of the biological (the generation of human life), but in a higher level, in the emotional or conceptual. Sex is a matter of what I feel or think about myself, not what I actually am as embodied. Second: Vertical finality—understood as personal fulfillment and the embrace of one’s identity—is found through rejecting the bodily, not through integrating it. Any endocrinologist putting healthy people on puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones to “align” their bodies with their “felt gender” is professing these falsehoods, whether verbally or not.
Remember Lonergan: the lower levels are not as excellent as the higher ones, but they are more essential. I cannot be fulfilled by rejecting what is essential about myself. Rather, I can onlybe fulfilled if I accept what is essential, while recognizing that the more essential levels do not sum up all that I am.
In vertical integration, the lower levels of the human being are ordered to the higher. Biological life is ordered to the good life (contemplation and virtue), sex is ordered to friendship, and so forth. Vertical finality is important, because, as Lonergan puts it, “The cosmos is not an aggregate of isolated objects hierarchically arranged on isolated levels, but a dynamic whole in which … one level of being or activity subserves another.” The human person, as the cosmos in miniature, reflects this. If I live as an aggregate of isolated levels—the biological, the social, the rational—without integration, I do not live as a dynamic whole. But each human person is just such a dynamic whole, discovered through the integration and not the rejection of her horizontal levels. As Lonergan puts it, “the vertical emerges all the more strongly as the horizontal is realized the more fully.”
What makes comprehensive sense of all these levels of reality is the finality that Lonergan calls “absolute” or supernatural finality: a purpose that transcends the natural orders of meaning and ends, as real as these are, and even the natural vertical finality of a human being living and acting well. This absolute finality gives ultimate meaning and purpose to the cosmos. The “vertical upthrust” (to use Lonergan’s words) of sexuality is not only ordered to friendship with other human beings but also to supernatural friendship with God.
This kind of friendship is possible only through grace. Thus, the introduction of absolute finality serves as a transition from the human sciences and philosophy to revelation and theology. I will not attempt to sketch out these ideas here. Suffice it to say that sexuality can be integrated into an even higher end than earthly excellence.
In short: the sexual revolution’s rejection of sex’s meaning and purpose is a larger philosophical claim about the non-existence of (sexual) horizontal finality. This stance renders impossible a healthy integration of the complex levels within the human person (“vertical finality”). A more humane approach is to accept the horizontal finality of our distinct levels and to work with those ends rather than attempting to eliminate them through technology. Practices such as fertility awareness for achieving or avoiding pregnancy respect the horizontal finality of sex and foster integration, as do the best therapeutic approaches to gender dysphoria.
In a dis-integrated age, we are hungry for such affirmation of our embodiedness.